Thursday, April 28, 2005

Story and Space

Last night at 2:00am I was called to the hospital again. This time I was with a large family--grown children, their spouses, and their children. It's interesting that different responses are elicted from me in different gatherings and situations. Early this morning, I felt myself being a spacemaker, a placeholder, a person whose arms, mind, and heart held open the space for the sacred stories to fill. I prayed a lot, breathed a lot, sat and listened a lot. I filled the space myself very little--speaking only when it felt helpful to hold up a mirror, create a practical path, call attention to a tender theme, or let the storyteller know he or she was being heard and received.

What is the space of story? I wonder how is it helped or hindered by the many voices contributing, breaking with emotion, smoothing with comfort, lifting with memory, spilling over with the slightest smiles into a future not anticipated but welcoming us, nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Tears & Memories

I was with them when she 8:30am Saturday morning, after four months of a steady and slow decline...heart attack, stroke, surgery. Her daughters were on her right, stroking her arm, her hand, kissing her cheek, whispering goodbyes. Her husband was on her left, alternately wiping her face with a cool cloth, combining the hair that still showed memories of being blonde years before. Her last words had come early Friday morning, when her husband entered her room right after the case conference in which all the professionals and family were in agreement that it was time to stop life support. He'd said, "I love you, Mary," and for the first time in two weeks, she'd opened her eyes and moved her lips: "I love you, too."

I arrived at 3:00am, called by the attending nurse. She had thought Mary was close to death, and she wanted a chaplain here to help support the family. She looked at me apologetically when I arrived. "I may have called you too soon," she said. "She's had a bit of a rally here."

I didn't mind--I never mind. In fact, my own belief is that God is the one who prompts others to make the when it's time, it's time. I quickly fell in love with this family. They welcomed me into their vigil; they shared their stories; they showed me pictures (could this woman in the bed really be the laughing, vibrant blonde with six children in these photos?). They laughed about Mary's passion--her perpetually new red convertible. She traded her car every two years so it was always new. She didn't want her husband to drive it--he might not take care of it the way she did. They laughed about how she would have hated for me to see her without her nails done, with her hair a mess. Her husband loves her like he did on their honeymoon. Probably more. I swallow hard many times, feeling the tears his tenderness brings to my surface. I am swept over with an awesome sense of love. What an honor it is to be able to be with families in these sacred moments.

Mary's last breath came at 8:26. We were waiting, praying, silent, sensing. Her breaths had slowed and slowed...the space between breaths were longer than the breaths themselves. I noticed that her husband was unconsciously breathing in time with her breaths. They took a deeper breath together and, two more...then another deep breath. Her husband sighed. She exhaled. It was the last time.

It took a moment for everyone to realize the next breath wasn't coming. I sat, praying, acutely aware. The older daughter leaned closer to her mother's face. Her husband looked intensely at her face. I rose quietly and motioned for the nurse. Down the hall, two other nurses stood waiting. One mouthed, "Is she gone?" I nodded. Their faces were sad. They cared. They loved this family the way I did.

The next hour was filled with fresh grief--the realization that somehow, mysteriously, this person we loved was here a minute ago, and now she's not. Now she's beyond our reach. She's somewhere else, doing who knows what. We can look at her and so obviously see she has left--and yet there are goodbyes to be said, and promises made, and family members to hold, comfort, and call. The mourning the family has been doing for the last four months in preparation for this time is now real, fresh, broken open, new.

Beneath the window, parked against the curb, sat a shiny red convertible. I imagined it as Mary's chariot, driven by a couple of fun-loving angels who'd come to take her home.